Thumbs Up to Bribery… In Moderation

Let’s call it what it is. Bribery.

Euphemistically, we’re talking about the carrot over the stick. It’s positive reinforcement over negative reinforcement… on smile-inducing steroids.

Come on. We know we use it on our kids, we use it on our colleagues, we sugar coat it and then dole it out sweetly to friends, lovers, and spouses. Hell, we bribe ourselves when we need to, in order to get things done.

So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with a little friendly persuasion in the form of extra screen time in exchange for Junior sticking to cello practice? Why not nudge little Lucy to be more responsible about feeding the dog, dangling the painting set she wants as her reward, should she follow through for a specified time period?

Bribery = Single Mother Sanity. Big Time.

Have you been stuck in your car with fighting kids for any extended period of time? Oh, say… twelve minutes or more as Excedrin Headache Number 327 (this year) pounds along your temples?

For this single mother, occasional bribery was the necessary path to sanity. Not just in a car (for the umpteenth day in a row), but for soliciting help above and beyond the usual, when I was too tired to keep going, for getting my kids to stop nagging when I was staring at a long night of work to do at my computer, and my list goes on…  Doesn’t yours?

When you’re outnumbered by your kids and doing the domestic dance solo, believe me – you will reach a point at which you can no longer coax, coerce, convince or raise your voice. Nor can you negotiate any longer – especially if you’re dealing with a precocious and persistent tween or teen.

An extra hour of video games? Drive-Thru at McDonald’s? You bet.

Money? In my case, generally speaking, that was a no.

Bribing Our Kids – Bad Parenting?

Is it frequency of the carrot? Its proportionality? Its hidden message? A reward promised for responsibilities that should become second nature seems ill-advised – to me. A $30,000 new car for the teenager who pulls up his grades? Equally ill-advised – to me.

Room for Debate takes up the issue of bribing our kids, and whether or not these systems we use to produce desire outcomes are doing any real harm.

K. J. Dell’Antonia and Bruce Feiler take opposing sides of this issue when it comes to kids – Ms. Dell’Antonia is for bribes of all sorts (squabbling kids in long car rides… I get it); Mr. Feiler apparently is not – though further back-and-forth reveals that Ms. Dell’Antonia manages the process and Mr. Feiler’s reward systems may not be quite so different as we think at first glance.

Mr. Feiler purposely doesn’t motivate with money, however, concerned that it encourages kids to become greedy.

Pros and Cons on Bribing Kids

Referring to past successes with her bribery reward system, Ms. Dell’Antonia writes:

… this year, we have more bribes ahead: for homework, for on-time morning departures and for completion of extra math practice.

Mr. Feiler counters:

… it works the first few times, but soon enough everything becomes a negotiation over money. If I get a dollar to make my bed, how much to set the table? What if I make my sister’s bed, do I get her dollar?

He continues with his bottom line:

Promising tangible rewards in advance, from money to sweets, quickly devalues the rewards. Kids just do things for the prize. Instead, I’ve become a fan of “now/then” rewards…  an unexpected treat…

As far as I’m concerned, neither of these parents seems to be turning a blind eye to values much less repercussions of their reward system style.

In fact, Ms. Dell’Antonia says “I don’t bribe for small stuff or easy stuff,” which gives you an idea right there that she controls the process.

Sweets, Sweet Talk, Making Sweet Music…

So what about sex to get what we want from our partners? Or at the very least, a sweet dessert, a little sweet talk, or a sweet disposition when he takes a long weekend with his golfing buddies?

Now, now. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Call it whatever you like, but both sexes make pleasurable promises in exchange for something they desire. It’s give-and-take, it’s negotiation, it’s reality.

Sure, we also make these gestures and act on them out of love, but can we be honest that they’re sometimes part of an agenda? Aren’t these forms of bribery to some degree, or would you call them something else in the same family of benign manipulation?

Bribery. Bad Word. How About “Motivation?”

Bribery. It’s a very charged term. Is the real problem here one of terminology?

As for the word itself, bribery is defined as:

giving a benefit (e.g., money) in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust..

It is also described as having a “corrupt purpose” and being a “crime.”

Incidentally, when you Google “psychology and reward systems” you find articles on food, and the way it works on the brain. Food is a common tool used by parents to “bribe” their kids into certain behaviors. It’s equally effective on adults, if you ask me. Food is pleasurable. Why wouldn’t we work toward a pleasurable outcome?

Aren’t method and moderation the real issues to contend with? The disproportionate reward, as in the car example I gave? Constantly giving in to buying “stuff” instead of instituting discipline?

Food, Money, and Other Motivators

The fact is, we all respond to rewards. It may be chocolate that I promise myself, as I hone concentration and settle in for a long night of work. It may mean handing over car keys to a teenager for three weekends if he gets his college applications finished early, or an especially sexy night for your amoureux if he skips his afternoon of football and helps you prune trees in the garden instead.

In the workplace, don’t we put in extra effort at the promise of a bonus? Or at the very least, some sort of special recognition?

Clearly, we use money, food, sex, and opportunities of other sorts in order to exert our influence with those in our life. We don’t do so in ways that are criminal, and nor do I find it corrupt when you’re at your wits end with stubborn kids, caught between a rock and a hard place with your work schedule and the visiting in-laws, and granting “favors” achieves your end when you’re in a pinch.

The “Carrot” is a Win-Win, When Managed

Kids respond to instant gratification. For that matter, so do adults. We learn to negotiate for what we want, which doesn’t mean whining, moaning, and wearing down the opponent – though I admit that in land of solo motherhood, I certainly did my share of succumbing.

Bribery? In the case of relationships, we’re constantly involved in giving and taking for a breadth of reasons. Bribing our kids with food, toys, bucks – and great experiences? If we’re not doing it all the time, if we’re positioning it carefully, if we manage it in ways that do not break our “value” lessons, isn’t it among our set of useful life skills?